Wilton, Connecticut is nationally recognized for its resources to help people with mental illness, but that does not mean the problem does not persist. GOOD Morning Wilton intern Lily Kepner spent her four-week internship investigating “Mental Health in Wilton,” culminating in this two-part series about resources, climate, and action. Kepner interviewed six different people, combed through town documents and research findings, and transcribed over three hours worth of interviews, or almost 30 pages. An issue dear to her heart, this is what Kepner discovered.

The first part in the series, “Mental Health in Wilton:  The Schools,” ran yesterday, and received much positive feedback. Karen Morneau, whose daughter Julia Morneau, created her own award-winning program in Wilton Schools after opening up about her own experiences with mental illness, wrote, “Thank you for sharing and reporting on this very important yet sensitive subject. More kids suffer in silence than we can imagine!” GMW reader Marie Demasi, candidly shared her gratitude on Facebook as well:  “Thank you for doing the research and sharing. My brother died by suicide at the age of 13 the stigma of mental illness has followed me since I was 9. We need to be the voice.”

Today in part two, Kepner examines mental health resources available through the Town of Wilton and non-profit organizations with a local presence. Links and contact information are available at the end of the article.

The pressure to succeed not only affects students, but parents and community members in the town of Wilton as well. But there is hope. Wilton offices, nonprofits, and individuals continue to demand attention and intervention for this issue due to the rising demands.

Wilton Youth Services

In 2016, the Wilton Youth Services (WYS) Mental Health Needs Assessment was conducted by a Wilton Social Services Commission Subcommittee, and a report was published on the town website.

After thorough investigation, the committee recorded a substantial increase in the demand for clinical services for mental illnesses. Additionally, the clinical services required generally demanded longer intervention and a more complex treatment plan to accommodate for higher mental illness. This resulted in a decrease in the time Wilton Youth Services could devote to community program coordination and community outreach, leading the committee to recommend that an additional five hours of WYS staff per week would help make their work more effective. These requests were fulfilled with assistance from a state grant.

Colleen Fawcett, Wilton Youth Services coordinator, began working for the Wilton Youth Services department 25 years ago. She is a licensed clinical social worker, and works to connect families and children to resources and/or treat them, as well as collaborating with the schools, the Wilton Youth Council, Kids in Crisis, and other organizations in town to make sure kids are safe.

“The youth services coordinator position was really created as a collaborator position to try to get people who are working with kids to work in concert,” Fawcett reflects. “It’s about weaving a tight safety net.”

After 25 years, Fawcett has seen significant changes since she started. “The needs have grown, I think mainly in the areas of anxiety and depressive type disorders. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has grown as well, absenteeism is on the rise and is an issue, and I think the pressure has built up over time as well.” The department has grown with these issues, as have the services, mission, and work.

In the course of a year for WYS, around 50-60 children receive some kind of “significant support” from the department. The department receives referrals from the schools, from parents, from pediatricians, and from organizations. “When we talk about our resources, parents tend to feel more comfortable approaching us,” says Fawcett.

Wilton Youth Services provides community outreach, program collaboration, and clinical services to the public to improve mental health quality in the town. “We’re like bees,” Fawcett says, “we’re cross-pollinating all the time and sharing information.”

One of the new initiatives the WYS department has taken on is to monitor school attendance. Fawcett looks at attendance data, identifying chronically tardy or absent children, and works with the parents and schools to pinpoint what is preventing children from being at school. “We know through our research that chronic absenteeism is one of the major drivers of underlying anxiety disorders,” Fawcett adds. “So often times what we are doing is treating that anxiety.”

When asked what she wished people knew about mental illness, Fawcett answers with one of the truisms of mental health treatment: “It is nothing to be ashamed of.”

She adds, “It’s treatable, it’s part of physical and spiritual wellness…the mental health of a person matters.”

Wilton Youth Council

As part of her outreach, and personal commitment to the topic, Fawcett also leads the Wilton Youth Council Freeplay Matters Task Force. This Task Force is a new initiative focused on inspiring the community to give more freedom to children when it comes to play, something that seems so simple and silly, but is just as important.

“We know that social emotional learning is really critical in child development,” Fawcett says. In play, children experience their first exposure to problem solving, time management, collaboration, creativity, and empathy, all on their own. Every time they work out which game to play with a friend, squeeze in a game before they know they will be picked up, create a different world, or comfort a friend who has fallen down, they are exercising and building skills essential to social and emotional development.

The task force formed in December of 2017 after Dr. Peter Grey spoke at a WYC talk and presented about the dangers of depriving children of unsupervised play. The premise behind starting such an effort was that in a town that tends to push for heavily structured, over-programmed lives, kids are growing up without the play they need and because of that, may become more prone to mental illness.

Vanessa Elias is a Wilton parent who has served as Wilton Youth Council‘s volunteer president for four years before recently passing that baton to Liane Roseman.

Elias has lived in many different countries, and says what strikes her as the most profound difference in cultures was the amount of freedom kids have elsewhere–much more than in the United States. In other countries, kids tend to be given much more independence and confidence to be their own people and go out into the world, whereas in the United States, kids are over regulated and monitored.

“[Here], people are parenting out of fear; people worry here that there is only one way to succeed in the world,” she says, adding that in her experience, she has found that that this is far from the truth.

Wilton Youth Council executive director Genevieve Eason says that research links this lack of freedom in play to increasing rates of anxiety and depression in children and teens.

“If we’re seeing that our high school kids are struggling now, it probably didn’t start in ninth grade,” she adds. “Some of those kids arrived at the high school already having those troubles, so [the Freeplay Task Force] is one example of looking at how can we start with young kids and prevent that from happening in the future. We consider it a really early prevention approach.”

The first one to hold that executive director’s job, Eason is no stranger to Wilton Youth Council. “Over the years I was the [volunteer] vice president on the board,” she explains. “Some of us were just putting in so much time that we wondered how we would find a volunteer to replace us, so I was very lucky to be selected for this job.”

Now, Eason oversees the youth programs, parent program, and community programs the organization runs, in addition to marketing, fundraising, and collaborating with other local organizations serving youth.

Unlike Wilton Social Services, the Wilton Youth Council does not provide clinical services. However, they provide resources, information and access to speakers, to both help people recognize when treatment might be a necessary option, and build social and emotional skills.

One mechanism Wilton Youth Council uses to help kids develop those social and emotional skills is through three clubs in Wilton’s middle school and high school. Youth 2 Youth at Middlebrook Middle School and Warrior Council at Wilton High School focus on substance use prevention and leadership; Peerconnection at the High School offers a curriculum-based approach to enable kids who are natural leaders to look out for their peers.

“Kids at that age tend to go to other kids for help before they go to adults” Eason says. “The idea is that the peers are already seeking them out, so we can strengthen them in what they are doing, in that connection. When you’re the kid that everyone is coming to it can be draining, so we are teaching kids to take care of themselves and teaching them when they need to find an adult.”

Eason first got involved with Wilton Youth Council four years ago, inspired to volunteer within the mental health area because of her own family’s story–something she has shared with others to help educate other families. She watched her daughter struggle with pressures, and deal with anxiety and depression.

Part of Eason’s mission is to help other children find help sooner, and provide more resources for families to become aware and empowered.

“We had great support in this town and in the school, a wonderful therapist… but I think if I had recognized the symptoms earlier, then maybe it wouldn’t have progressed as much of it did.”

A key part of making this possible for families, she says, is to eliminate the stigma. “Mental illness is treatable…but you have to be willing to ask for help. And you have to know where to get help. And those things are important to me.”

Eason elaborates, saying that treatment is a journey. As her daughter’s recovery progressed, she often felt the pressure to solve things quickly so that she wouldn’t fall behind. Over time, she realized that nothing was more important than getting better, and that required time.

“Life is long and she has plenty of time to be adult. The healthier you can send your kids out into the world the better they are going to take the challenges. There’s no rush,” Eason reminds.

At the Wilton Youth Council, Eason has helped shed light on parent well-being as well. This past year, parent education was geared towards addressing the pressure in Wilton, specifically the study done by Dr. Suniya Luthar [mentioned in part one of this series]. One of the WYC-sponsored talks on the study was called, ‘The Pressure to be Perfect and its Unintended Consequences,’ in regard not only to kids, but to parents as well.

“All of us feel like we have to do everything right all the time… you can’t be a caregiver if you’re depleted yourself. There’s nothing left to give,” Eason adds.

NAMI, Parents, & More

Eason’s longtime collaborator at Wilton Youth Council was Vanessa Elias, who in addition to serving as WYC’s president, has also volunteered for the last five years for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Wilton’s region.

She too was compelled to become active due to her own family’s personal experience with mental illness. Feeling helpless when her own family’s situation escalated, Elias became a passionate volunteer locally, working to provide support for people live with mental illness and their families. 

“I think it’s really important to me to make myself vulnerable and tell my story so that other people can be comfortable, because of that isolation that I felt while my family was struggling. I know how many people suffer out there. I know that so many parents think its their fault.”

But it’s not.

Elias leads a support group through NAMI’s Child and Adolescent Network (CAN) for parents in Wilton after attending one in Stamford herself and feeling the benefit of getting help by talking about it with people who understand. The support group is free, confidential, and run by trained, certified volunteer facilitators, meeting on the fourth Monday of every month (excluding July and August).

For Elias, the support group made a significant difference. “It was nice to have a place to go where people understood what was going on in my house and it wasn’t surprising to them. I wanted to provide that for other people.”

In addition to facilitating the support group, Elias works tirelessly to erase the stigma associated with mental illness, what she views as her “personal mission” in the world. With her daughter’s permission, Elias is vocal about her experience to help other parents and children see that mental illness is due to nothing more than “unlucky genes” and just like with any other physical illness, can be treated, and must be addressed.

“I wanted to make a difference in the culture here. There are a lot of expectations and pressure on not just kids, but on parents too.”

What You Can Do

Eason’s advice to parents of children with mental health issues is to address it, right away. “Don’t be afraid to confront it head on. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge it and get help. Mental illness is a disease in your brain, an organ just like the rest of your body. It’s not a character flaw. There is no shame in getting help.”

Kate DeAngelis, who graduated from Wilton High School last weekend, says simple understanding from friends and others in the community can go a long way. Coping with depression and anxiety “since preschool,” she has seen first hand the way others react to someone coping with mental health issues, especially in a high performing town.

“I wish people were more understanding …  a lot of people will say, ‘Oh I love my room neat, I have OCD’ but that’s not true. There are people that really, truly suffer from it–I know, I’ve seen it first hand. And it’s really, really hard and really difficult [when people] make jokes about it or think it’s funny or fake.”

A lot of times, this lack of empathy can make it harder to seek help, and make people with mental illnesses feel more isolated.

One of the biggest challenges people with mental illnesses face is feeling like they are alone. DeAngelis, who struggled to admit something wasn’t right as well, advises those in a similar situation to “just talk to someone.” “You don’t have to know what’s going on … just talk. You need to know that people will care about you and talk to you and get you help but you have to share what you’re feeling. No one can go in your head, look around and magically know what’s wrong.”

The best thing to do as a friend of someone suffering from a mental illness, says DeAngelis, is “to just be there.”

“Sometimes that person may want to talk or vent, but other times he or she may just want to be around someone … and do something every teenager does. It’s really important not to pry; just be there.”

And not just for the person struggling. Elias recounts how her daughter’s illness affected her house, recounting how isolating and alone everyone felt. Then one day, Elias recounts, she walked into the Village Market, and a friend came up and gave her a big hug, asked how she was doing, and told her she was proud of her. To Elias, that made all the difference.

“You never know what’s going on for someone,” Elias remarks. Anything supportive, friendly or caring helps.

DeAngelis echoes that same sentiment, and wishes “more people would take it seriously and just listen” when they know a friend lives with a mental illness. “It’s so important for people to check in with their friends, not to pry per se, but just kind of say, ‘Hi, what’s going on?’ or ‘How are you?'”

Editor’s note:  Typically, GOOD Morning Wilton leaves the opinion to letter writers or op-ed contributors. But since this series was written and reported by a Wilton High School senior intern, to conclude the piece we thought we’d let her add her own thoughts about what she learned and what she hopes people will take away from reading these two stories. Here’s Lily Kepner’s concluding words: 

“The impact and success of Wilton’s resources, support, volunteers, and staff is simply indisputable. Our resources have been nationally recognized by organizations like Letgrow.org, NPR, and PBS News Hour, which featured Wilton Youth Services’ success in a segment broadcast earlier this year. We are lucky to have this support network, and beyond blessed to have these volunteers and employees fight for our mental, emotional, and spiritual needs.

“But the question should not only be how to fix the problem when it appears, but why the problem persists in the first place. And that answer, the issue of climate, is in the control of every single Wiltonian, in every one of you.

“Erasing the stigma of mental illness is a national issue that must be remedied by individual change. Whether you have been affected by mental illness personally or through watching a loved one, this issue will not go away if it is not addressed. Reach out to a friend. Act on your intuition and get early intervention, or reach out to someone for help. Prioritize relationships over performance. Improve the town climate in any way you can. Know the power of each of your actions.

“And if you are suffering, know you are not alone.”

Resources

NAMI CT:  Support Groups or Education:  The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, in Connecticut,  is an organization that, according to their mission statement, work to provide “support, education and advocacy for Connecticut’s citizens affected by mental illness.” Last month alone, NAMI held a walk on May 18 and their first ever Charity Golf Tournament Event on May 21 to raise money for support programs and increase awareness. NAMI provides support groups and education, and provides all services free of charge, which is hugely important as many health insurance providers continue to deny support for mental illness treatment.

NAMI-CAN Wilton Facebook Page

211:  A 24-hour hotline that can connect you to a highly-trained mental health specialist to talk you, and refer you to the right resources.

Wilton Youth Services and Wilton Social Services:  203.834.6241 A department of Wilton’s town government that works closely with Wilton Youth Council, the schools, and individuals within the community to provide direct support for the social, behavioral and emotional needs of children suffering.

Wilton Youth Council

Crisis Text Line  Text HOME to 741741 for 24/7 crisis support

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